"Our greatest challenge is also our greatest opportunity. We must move “outside the bus” and re-imagine our future as providers of mobility."
Ahead of SmartTransit LA, we sat down with Jeff Arndt, President & CEO of VIA Transit, for a quick chat about his job and the sector's latest MaaS advances.
Jeff will be a speaker in SmartTransit LA on October 28-30th, where he will talk about the latest developments on Mobility as a Service in a presentation relevant to industry experts and decision makers alike. Join us at LA for the full topic, and read a taste of some of his insights below.
First off, a bit of background: How did you started your current career path, and what does your position as President & CEO of VIA Transit entails?
I started in transit in 1980 in Houston, as a civil engineer developing park & ride lots. I had been consulting, and wanted to move to an organization that actually implemented projects and delivered services.
In Houston, I made several lateral moves to broaden my experience, working in such diverse areas as service planning, HOV operation, paratransit operation, marketing, and community relations. In 1999, Shirley DeLibero joined METRO and named me COO. This provided the opportunity to build the team that operated the first light rail line in Houston.
In 2005, I joined Texas Transportation Institute, where I did research and technical support in their transit division. I joined VIA in 2012 as Deputy CEO and was promoted to CEO the following year. As CEO, I oversee a system that operates service throughout Bexar County and plans for enhancing and expanding service to meet the future needs of the fastest growing city in America.
How has the transportation industry changed since you started working in VIA?
VIA is an all-bus operation, but what I would say is that technology is making delivery of urban rail-like service more possible without the rails. Our rapid transit plan incorporates a” trackless train” concept.
What industry challenges do you identify as the most pressing ones, and how is VIA Transit tackling them?
Our greatest challenge is also our greatest opportunity. We must move “outside the bus” and re-imagine our future as providers of mobility. For decades, the transit industry has struggled to serve suburban markets, acknowledging that the roadway network, land use patterns, and lack of density are not conducive to traditional fixed route service. Then for decades, we tried running buses in the suburbs and we found that we were absolutely correct – it does not work.
Therefore, many of us (VIA included) are starting to offer mobility-on-demand options, using small vehicles in a demand-response mode. Our VIA Link service replaces three bus routes, each of which ran hourly. Now, customers are picked up within five minutes of trip requests and carried to any location in their zone. This is saving VIA money and allowing us the equipment and dollars to increase core service frequency. These kinds of services will become increasingly important as our cities continue to grow outward.
The emergence of TNCs has certainly impacted the public’s perspective on mobility service, too; our systems can no longer run a bus every 30 minutes and expect that our customers (and would-be customers) will be satisfied. VIA is pushing service to higher frequency, with an emphasis on getting to a 10-12-minute frequency on an increasing number of routes.
You’re quite involved with mobility on demand – any current or potential future trends that interest you?
Mobility on demand appears to be very well-suited to serving suburban development, feeding into bus/rail routes to provide access to the rest of a transit system. I am interested in how the concept might also be applied in major activity centers -- conceptually, transit services would cluster at a transit center and then the distribution of customers throughout that activity center would be accomplished with mobility on demand-type services. This would be particularly applicable in emerging centers. VIA has already developed transit centers in or near many of our employment centers – South Texas Medical Center, Airport, Brooks, and downtown -- so we are preparing for such a shift.
Our objective of piloting VIA Link (our MOD) was to replace three poorly-performing hourly bus routes with a service that would be more convenient, flexible, direct, and which operated at a lower cost. During the first three months of the pilot, the fixed route services remained. While ridership grew consistently week after week on VIA Link, ridership on the buses fell more slowly. We view this as encouraging information in that we are generating new riders. We are about to remove the underlying bus services after two rounds of VIA staff riding every trip, providing information on how to use VIA Link and demonstrating the app. Many bus riders reported that they would move to VIA Link when the buses stopped running; they were just used to the buses.
What's the biggest professional challenge you've ever faced?
An important part of leadership is assembling a strong team. Early in my career, my focus was nearly totally upon the technical skills and productivity level of staff. I did not consider the “price” that a team's results might have exacted on their members or peers. My challenge was to see beyond the numbers and to understand that my management team is truly reflecting our organizational standards. In doing so, I came to appreciate that a technically productive staff member whose actions and style are not aligned with our culture are perhaps the most dangerous people in the organization. Even though they are exceeding technical expectations, they are undermining your credibility as a leader. Credibility and trust are extremely important to the functioning of leadership. Unfortunately, at that point, it is essential that they part company with your organization.
Are there any past projects in your life you're proud of? Are there any upcoming ones you're excited about?
I joined Houston METRO when it was just beginning, when many of the programs and projects were being developed during those early days. I am proud of developing the operating team for the first light rail line in Houston, and I am particularly proud of the role I played in planning and later operating the extensive system of HOV lanes throughout the region. These lanes provided travel time and reliability benefits, and attracted “by choice” riders to a level that required peak frequencies of less than five minutes.
At VIA in San Antonio, Centro Plaza at VIA Villa is perhaps the ultimate passenger facility. Over one million boardings occur annually at Centro Plaza; three of the busiest ten stops in the entire VIA system are on the Plaza. It is a landmark development that is a catalyst for redevelopment of the near Westside.
I am also very excited by our plans for Advance Rapid Transit in the next decade. We plan seven corridors, and are likely to seek voter approval in 2020 of the funding for our VIA Reimagined plan, that included increased frequency on major bus routes and mobility-on-demand in the suburbs.
All these accomplishments are really the result of hiring and supporting the best staff, really, and that is the “project” of which I am most proud.
Finally, a question we ask all our interviewees: what's your favourite rail journey in the world, and why?
I must confess that I have been a patron of European river cruises over the last several years, with another trip planned next spring, but I aspire to take a different approach and ride the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express from Paris to Budapest. The end points are two amazing cities, the rail cars are moving works of art, and the journey is full of wonderful vistas.
To meet Jeff and other fantastic industry speakers, decision makers, and sector experts, join us at SmartTransit LA 2019, on October 28-30th!